Membership meeting piques GA interest, generates responses

By James Anderson

With pizza from Quatro’s atop tables against the wall, alongside a variety of generic soda and a laptop hooked up to a borrowed projector, a town hall ambience suffused the room on the third floor of the Student Center the night of Feb 19.

Those who delivered reports stood and looked upon their colleagues, sharing the same physical space of the room, bound together by the shared roles they occupy at the University and the sense of solidarity that brought them there.

Those Graduate Assistants came together that evening for the GAUnited spring semester General Membership Meeting to hear committee reports, learn about upcoming officer elections, discuss the mid-March Intent to Bargain rally and deliberate with regards to the bargaining agenda.

An earlier GMM was held from noon to 1 p.m. that day, and Matt Ryg, president of GAU, attended both.

Ryg gave the Executive Committee report and highlighted union activities at the evening meeting.

Following initiative from the Executive, GAU filed an unfair labor practice charge against the University on Feb. 10, Ryg said in the report.

The charge pertains to the Graduate School’s announcement that they would no longer approve assistantship higher than a .5 full-time equivalent, he said.

Ryg noted Section 5.3 in the collective bargaining agreement that states an appointment can be up to .75 FTE.

“By unilaterally prohibiting those, it’s a violation of our contract,” Ryg said.

Ryg also reminded those in attendance that while the Executive is composed of elected officers and the chairs of the different GAU committees, the EC meetings are open to the public.

Kevin Taylor, vice president of Communications, updated attendees on what the Communications Committee, which he chairs, has been up to.

Taylor said the monthly e-newsletter, The Advocate, is the way most GAs – the 2,181 who receive union emails – read and see the work of his committee.

The most read article in the history of The Advocate is a piece Benny LeMaster, doctoral candidate in the department of speech communication, wrote for the special Black Friday edition of the newsletter, Taylor said.

Taylor said the GAU website is an enhanced WordPress webpage.

“We’ve modified it, cleaned it up from last year so everything is much easier to navigate and it structurally makes a lot more sense,” he said. “And it’s prettier.”

He said the Communications Committee has borrowed from other organizations and templates to generate the union calendar, “The PHD Movie” fliers, happy hour handouts and other materials.

“We work very closely with all of the committees because we are Communications,” Taylor said

He mentioned that GAU is also communicating through a variety of social media outlets, from Twitter, to Facebook to Instagram, to better engage and interact with members.

The new GAU Member Bargaining Survey, emailed to Graduate Assistants on Feb. 15, is one way interactive method, Taylor noted. The survey will help determine the union’s bargaining agenda.

A set of policy briefs created by the Legislative and Political Action Committee will also be used when bargaining, the subsequent LPAC report stated.

Briefs on wages, fees, healthcare and quality control all drafted by LPAC members were passed on to the Executive, and those policy statements contain sample language that can be used in the next round of contract negotiations to model the future CBA.

GAs who are interested in or already working on other projects related to any of the following, the LPAC report stated, are encouraged to join the committee:

  • Social or economic justice
  • Labor issues
  • Workplace democracy
  • Ideas for direct action or demonstrations
  • Plans for rallies
  • Legislative policy suggestions
  • Community service ideas
  • Civic engagement activities
  • Bargaining agenda items
  • Coalition building strategies to collaborate with other student/University organizations
  • Solidarity with other unions and union causes, like the #UICStrike

LPAC is encouraging the sort of social movement unionism that takes solidarity seriously, and makes broader issues of justice and democracy on campus and beyond issues for union activism too, the LPAC report suggested, as well as issues central to Graduate Assistants.

Some of those central issues include labor disputes and grievances.

Sandy Kim, GAU grievance officer, briefed those at the meeting about what a grievance is, and what the grievance procedure entails.

She said that GAs that think one of their rights under the collective bargaining agreement have been violated should talk to their department steward, who can then either help informally resolve the issue or consult the Grievance Committee.

“Ideally you want to resolve the grievance informally with your department chair or the lowest level administrator before we have to go any kind of formal grievance process,” Kim said. “But the formal grievance process is outlined in the CBA, Article 20.”

Kim said GAU recently reached an “historic settlement” with University Housing, which received some press coverage. She listed several other Grievance Committee accomplishments and on-going work:

  • Helped GAs in the medical school facilitate move to a new lab in Texas
  • Worked with the computer science department and Susan Ford, interim dean of the graduate school, to investigate GA abuse
  • Answered contractual questions for a number of GAs in various departments
  • Filed a class-action formal grievance with the English department that is now at level 3

She said the union initially filed the English grievance with the department chair. That was followed by an appeal to the graduate dean.

Kim said she and a few other GAs, along with Zach Macholz, steward for the English department who has been trying to resolve the departmental issues since last fall, sat down with Chancellor Rita Cheng and the University’s legal counsel to discuss the issues raised in the initial grievance.

The grievance is now “sitting with Chancellor Cheng,” Kim said. “So if the issues aren’t resolved at level three we go to arbitration.”

Jim Podesva, former president of GAU who sat at the bargaining table with Cheng and the rest of the administration during the last contract negotiations, sketched out ideas for the new bargaining committee, which is still being ironed out.

He said, in anticipation of the impending bargaining season, that “if you or you know somebody who is interested in that sort of thing – who you think have talents in that direction, we’d love to have you.”

Not everybody involved in bargaining sits at the table, Podesva reminded everyone. “Most of it is research.”

Patience is a virtue, especially when it comes to bargaining, he said.

“Look, if you think that you’re going to get involved in negotiations, and, by golly, it’s like a Hollywood movie where you’re going to stand up and pound on the table and say, ‘I want no fees, damnit!’ – that isn’t how it works,” he said.

He explained that the bargaining committee does not set its own target, and that the bargaining agenda is determined by members.

Membership has increased 38 percent since last year, and it has grown 17 percent over the last 5 years.

“The trend is curving upward,” said Podesva, who is also the Steward Council Chair.

Earlier, at the Steward Council meeting, he said stewards “are one of the most important assets the union has,” partly because stewards help cultivate new activists in their respective departments, and generally increase GAU numbers.

Those numbers make “all the difference in the world,” he said, adding that in the vein, there will be a unified declaration of the intent to bargain at a rally on March 19 at noon.

“It’s not just going to be three well-intentioned people holding signs like we’re angry or whatever,” he said.

All four on-campus unions will be there, he said, as will folks from unions in the surrounding area.

Dennis Lunt, who helped organize sit-ins to peacefully inveigh against the SIUC administration’s refusal to bargain in good faith during the last contract negotiations – and who earlier in 2011 protested the removal of the philosophy program at Cedarville University – spoke with fellow GAU organizer Jessica Soester about the Membership Committee at the GMM, and at the Steward Council Meeting that preceded it.

Lunt said he and Soester missed the first part of the GMM – and had to leave the Steward Council meeting early – because they were GAs in the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts. They answered questions, explained what the union does and “generally made ourselves visible,” he said. “That’s really our job – to make the union visible and bring some more folks in.”

Lunt emphasized that membership matters. He said the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Graduate Employees’ Organization has been around longer and has larger membership, which is why they have been able to bargain fees down to about $500 to $600 per semester.

The University of Illinois also does not have a minimum credit hour requirement for graduate students with assistantships. However, to have an assistantship, U of I graduate students must be registered for fall and spring semester, and individual departments at the University can have credit hour requirements, the Graduate College at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign said in a phone conversation with GAUnited.

“We’re heading that direction I think,” Lunt said.

He and Soester both said they are happy to meet with department RSOs and can attend other student gatherings later this spring to talk about the union.

Also later this spring, Ryg reminded those in attendance, upcoming officer elections will take place.

The notice for those elections will go out April 21, he said, and the elections will take place May 6.

Ryg also opened the meeting up to discussion about the bargaining agenda.

Kevin Horn, a doctoral student in zoology, suggested trying “to get a GAU office somewhere on campus.”

Natalie Nash, a master’s student studying zoology, said she would like to see some “clarity in terms,” regarding payment of fees.

It is all too easy to come in expecting the fee amount to be for the entire academic year, when in actuality the amount is for just a semester.

Nash said that “getting more clarification on how things are going to move forward,” from the discussion and reports, “and the opportunity to contribute to that,” were some of the better aspects of the meeting.

“I’m hoping to get involved,” she said. “I’m kind of interested in all of the aspects, so I need to find one and prioritize it.”

John Flowers, a doctoral student studying critical race theory and Zen philosophy, said the meeting was informative for GAs not well-versed in how the union functions but interested in the way it works.

“If I had known about this a lot earlier, I would have been far more involved, far quicker,” he said, citing the lack of racial diversity at the meeting as another area with room for improvement with respect to GAUnited activism.

Although he said he’d like to see more diversity in the membership, the union is still “probably one of the better organizations I’ve run into.”

Flowers, who is also president of the Sports Clubs Executive Board at the Student Rec Center, said union participation seems now a “natural outgrowth” of his other advocacy work on behalf of students.

He said his father was a union man when working in the telecommunications industry, and his mother was a member of the Illinois Education Association when she taught high school in the Chicago Public School system. Most of CPS is unionized through the Chicago Teachers Union, which is part of the American Federation of Teachers and not the IEA, but there are certain positions in the system that are affiliated with other unions.

“Union stuff is a thing that my family has done for a long time and it seems to be a fairly natural thing for me to become involved,” he said.

James Anderson is a doctoral candidate and the GAU Steward for the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts. His interests include social movements, alternative media, critical theory, prefigurative politics, horizontalidad, political economy and praxis.

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